23 Banned Books You Should Probably Read Right Now
Celebrate the freedom to read by picking up one (or all) of these banned books.
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Whether it’s on the news or your Facebook feed, you’ve probably noticed comments about the rise in book banning in libraries and schools. The fight over censorship and banned books is nothing new, but there seems to be a fresh effort to purge the shelves of so-called edgy cultural commentary (as in Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You), uncomfortable interpretations of reality (such as Maus and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), and provocative stories that could lead to political questioning (The Handmaid’s Tale, anyone?).
Parents, school board members, and activists have all been responsible for removing some of the best fiction books and nonfiction books from bookshelves. Of course, sometimes book banning backfires. When a book is banned, readers wonder why. And some feel compelled to buy the restricted work as a vote for free speech.
It’s difficult to say which book is the most banned in the United States. That’s because book banning is rarely a federal matter. Book bans tend to be specific to schools, towns, or sometimes states. But we do know that book banning has affected some of the best books of all time, from the best children’s books to classic books—even some Holocaust books.
Our curated list of stellar banned books includes 23 of what the American Library Association deems the most frequently banned books since 1990. (Psst—in the United States, a book might be banned from the library or the store, but that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to read it!) So whether you want to read a classic novel or a new work of fiction, these banned books are a great place to start.
1. Maus by Art Spiegelman
Let’s start with the banned book on everybody’s mind these days: Maus, a memoir in graphic novel form. The story was first published in 1980 as a magazine serial but really gained attention when it was released as the first volume of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale in 1986. The second volume was published in 1992 and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize—the first and only graphic novel to achieve that honor. Through cartoons, Art Spiegelman detailed the horrors of the Nazi invasion and Holocaust in a brazen way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The characters are portrayed as animals separated by species rather than ethnicity, a bold, jarring move. Despite its widespread critical acclaim, Maus was recently pulled from Texas library shelves. Why? Nudity (of animals) and profanity. Removing thoughtful materials because they offend is nothing new, but this particular ban has rekindled debates over censorship and convenient whitewashing of tragic historic events.
2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
An olive branch for busy readers: Toni Morrison’s 1970 best seller is also one of the best short books in our collection. The Bluest Eye is a perfect introduction to Morrison’s iconic lyrical style. The book offers the story of Percola Breedlove, a Black girl who longs for blue eyes. When her dream comes true, it turns out to be more nightmare than fantasy. In 1994, the book was banned in Alaska and Pennsylvania schools for graphic descriptions and offensive language.
3. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Jack London’s 1903 classic follows Buck, a giant, lovable cross between a Saint Bernard and Scotch collie. When the dog is stolen from his home to be sold as a sled dog, he must fight tooth and nail to survive. The story of a pampered pet turned survivor includes strong themes of individualism and social Darwinism. The result? Multiple incidents of book-banning in Europe—Italy, Yugoslavia, and Nazi territories, specifically—for this historical novel.
4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
No matter how you feel about human-sized bugs, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach seems innocent enough at first glance. It’s a 1961 children’s book about an orphan who makes friends with two creatures living inside a peach. Adventure ensues. Some schools have challenged the fantastical story for language, plus tobacco and alcohol references. But the oddest reason? In 1999, one small Wisconsin town officially made it one of its banned books after claiming that a scene in which a spider licks her lips could be “taken in two ways, including sexual.” Can’t say that would have been our first thought.
5. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Anne Frank’s diary was never meant to be public. The book, published in 1947, is a clear-eyed glimpse into the thoughts of a young teenager hiding in an attic to avoid being rounded up by the Nazis during World War II. But no, her diary hasn’t been removed from libraries because of the terror undergirding this heartbreaking account. Schools have deemed some of the 14-year-old’s plain descriptions of her anatomy “pornographic.” Even worse: One Alabama textbook committee asked for it to be added to the banned books list because it was “a real downer.” And, yes, it’s certainly a sad book because of Anne Frank’s fate, but it’s also moving, hopeful, and funny—and definitely worth a read.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Despite being so beloved, Harper Lee’s novel is still the fourth most challenged or banned classic book in the United States. Set in 1960s Alabama, the coming-of-age classic follows young Scout Finch, brother Jem, and father Atticus during the arrest and trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Through Scout’s eyes, readers bear witness to the deep injustice of the situation along with the bittersweet lessons of growing up. Advocates of banning the book argue that its issues with racism and sexuality aren’t suitable for young readers. Their stance hasn’t affected the popularity of the book (or its movie adaptation)—it’s widely considered one of the greatest books of all time.
7. Where’s Waldo?
Nope, this one isn’t a joke. The Where’s Waldo? illustrated books barely have any words, yet for an entire decade, they were some of the most banned. While readers were searching for Waldo after the book was originally published in 1987, they spotted something: a partially topless woman sunbathing in a beach scene. People complained, and the book landed among the top 100 most banned books in America between 1990 and 2000. More recently, Where’s Waldo? Santa Spectacular was banned in Texas prisons because it contained stickers. For more child-friendly fare, pick up one (or a few) of these nonfiction books for kids.
8. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Despite their widespread popularity, the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling have been challenged by Christian religious leaders and groups, with some even calling them “satanic.” That’s because the book series centers on a young wizard and his crew of friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Dark magic, evil villains, sorcerers, oh my! Schools across the country have banned them for their themes of witchcraft as well as their portrayals of death and evil.
9. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Where the Wild Things Are is one of those rare children’s books that frightens some adults for its edgy portrayal of kids’ imaginations and subconscious desires. The story follows young Max, who is sent to bed without supper because he ran wildly through the house. That night, Max’s dreams take him to a dark land where he becomes king of the Wild Things and leads a loud, hair-raising “Wild Rumpus.” It was tough enough for author Maurice Sendak to get his borderline dark book published, but when it finally hit shelves in 1963, it (like Max) got in even more trouble. Where the Wild Things Are is now a fun classic, but it was initially banned because little Max’s punishment was starvation and the story had disturbingly supernatural themes. If the supernatural’s your jam, check out our list of the top vampire books for adults.
10. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry’s 1993 dystopian children’s book has made waves for nearly three decades now. Set in a seemingly utopian community where everyone has a clear role and family group, the novel turns quickly dark when a boy named Jonas realizes the high cost of living without pain, war, or blatant hatred. As the underworld of this dystopia is revealed, readers are exposed to mentions of infanticide, suicide, and euthanasia. These themes—along with some violent passages—led to the story’s first banned books case in 1994. Despite its somewhat grown-up themes, Lowry’s Newbery Medal–winning classic is a worthy read (or listen; it’s available as an audiobook on Audible) for all kids.
11. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
This whimsical 1865 novel by Lewis Carroll has been adapted numerous times in literature, onstage, and on-screen, but it’s not beloved worldwide. The story centers on Alice’s disorienting adventure down a rabbit hole and into a fantasy world of talking animals and utterly absurd events (ahem, Mad Hatter tea party). It’s obvious why some parents might feel bewildered by this nonsensical book. But is its psychedelic-like prose worth banning? In 1931, the governor of China’s Hunan province thought so. He believed it was “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level” as the book does.
12. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley’s 1931 dystopian classic was first banned in Ireland for “anti-religion, anti-family, and blasphemous content,” according to Carnegie Mellon University’s Banned Books Project. Other countries soon followed suit. Before long, Brave New World was topping banned book charts in at least eight U.S. states. So what makes the cast of characters and plot so shudder-inducing? Possibly the portrayals of orgies, drugs, and rampant consumerism in exchange for personal freedom. In the book, a man born and raised outside the dystopian society becomes a tourist spectacle for his lack of addiction and adherence to independence. The book’s tragic ending begs the reader to answer: Would you rather be happy or free?
13. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 debut novel whisks readers away to Afghanistan, where the son of a rich man and the son of his servant forge an unlikely friendship. As the plot unfolds, fissures form in their nation’s foundation, and the boys explore betrayal, redemption, and the power of familial love. Despite the poignant themes, The Kite Runner has been banned multiple times for referencing sexual violence and “promot[ing] Islam.”
14. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Considered by many (including Reader’s Digest) one of the best books of all time, The Things They Carried is Tim O’Brien’s heartbreaking account of the Vietnam War. Though sometimes billed as a novel, this 2009 book is more of a collection of short vignettes and essays, all semi-autobiographical portrayals of the author’s time in Vietnam. Will it reflect all soldiers’ experiences? No. But for the throngs of readers who have never been forced to see war head-on, the book offers a sampling of memories. Though frequently included in high school curriculums, this book has been banned in the past for obvious reasons: senseless and, according to some, gratuitous violence.
15. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Laurie Halse Anderson’s 1999 book dives straight into the thorny subject of sexual assault. The young adult novel follows high school freshman Melinda Sordino after a life-changing assault during a summer party. The ensuing confusion—both internal and external—results in her being ghosted by her peers. The novel has been banned and challenged more than once, usually due to the rape scene. In some instances, it has been removed from shelves for its portrayals of teen drinking, profanity, and even a claim that it’s biased against male students.
16. George by Alex Gino
Alex Gino’s novel has been on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books list more than once since its 2017 debut. The unfortunate reason for the widespread restriction of this Scholastic novel is all too clear: It’s a children’s book about a transgender girl. The story follows Melissa, who her teacher and classmates call George. When Melissa is shut down for wanting to play a female role in the class play, she decides it’s time to change things. Though many teachers have praised George for its straightforward portrayal of a transgender child, it has frequently been pulled from shelves for LGBTQIA+ content and a plot that conflicts with certain communities’ religious beliefs.
17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is widely considered a must-read for its creative take on splitting the twin elements of space and time. The 1962 science-fantasy classic follows persnickety Meg Murry as she enters parallel universes in search of her father. Her companions, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, add loveable quirks and color along the way. So why has the book been banned, you ask? Primarily for its whimsical melding of science and supernatural, which some religious adherents take issue with. Those in favor of banning this book can’t seem to agree on a reason, though: It’s been banned for being both too religious and not religious enough.
18. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s best-selling book (which inspired the Hulu TV show) is as dystopian as they come. A mysterious medical blight has rendered most women infertile. New England has been overtaken by a group of patriarchal religious fanatics. And at the crossroads are the handmaids—women taken hostage by the government because of their ability to have children. In The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the women tells her story. Of course, the requisite scenes of sexual tyranny have gotten this book banned again and again. According to the American Library Association, it has been challenged for “vulgarity and sexual overtones.”
19. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s book was birthed just before a swell of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. But even before that, the authors of Stamped had begun leaving a deep imprint on libraries’ nonfiction collections. This children’s book about diversity provides readers with context for the racial tensions of today and offers hope for a more antiracist world in the future. And yet it was among the top ten most challenged books of 2020, primarily for the authors’ bold public words and claims that the book includes “selective” snippets of history. But while it may not be a history text, it’s certainly a must-read book about race relations in America.
20. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
What makes Go Ask Alice (1971) one of the most controversial books of all time? The depiction of teenagers locked in a destructive cycle of drug abuse, for one. And probably the bold stories featuring sexual abuse and prostitution too. This hotly debated work of young adult fiction is written in diary form and reads as if written by a 15-year-old teen runaway on a journey to find herself—if she doesn’t destroy herself first. It’s no wonder Go Ask Alice has been banned time and time again for its explicit themes.
21. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s 1969 memoir unpacks the poet’s childhood and early years as a writer. It’s a beautiful and tender coming-of-age story that offers readers a glimpse of love and creativity, yes, but also racism and trauma. As of 2010, the book was already weighed down by 39 challenges or bans. Most complaints stem from the memoir’s true depictions of rape and molestation. But some go so far as to call the book “anti-white.” But as many point out, when a Black author’s true story is deemed offensive simply for being told, readers would do well to ask themselves who provoked the abusive events in the first place.
22. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
This 1937 by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck has been pulled from shelves for almost a century. Common complaints focus on the novella’s racial slurs and stereotypes. Of course, the debate over Steinbeck’s prized work is similar to the ones around the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Using racial slurs to highlight racism still means that the writer used profane, hateful language. Racism is a central theme in Of Mice and Men, which details the journey of two migrant ranch workers in Depression-era California.
23. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical young adult novel about an amateur cartoonist has made waves since 2007. In the story, Junior leaves behind his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white public high school with a Native American mascot. The reflections on race and identity are at once funny, poignant, and heart-wrenching. The book has been banned several times, mostly for its profanity and references to sex. More recently, however, the book has been challenged because of sexual harassment allegations against the author himself.
- American Library Association: “Banned & Challenged Books”
- Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association: “Intellectual Freedom Blog”
- Carnegie Mellon University: “The Banned Books Project”
- Marshall University: “Banned Books 2021: Speak”
- The University of Tulsa: “Banned Books: Publications by Roald Dahl”